September 1, 2016 In The News

Norcross hosts college leaders to discuss escalating student loan debt

CHERRY HILL — Student loan debt is an escalating problem that holds millions of Americans in its grip.

About 43 million borrowers owe nearly $1.3 trillion, with the average Class of 2016 graduate having $37,172 in loan debt, according to Student Loan Hero, a website that gathers such statistics.

To try to combat the national epidemic, higher education leaders and others met with U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st of Camden, on Thursday to discuss systemic problems with college affordability and to identify solutions. They also highlighted efforts in South Jersey to reduce the cost of higher education during the roundtable discussion at Cherry Hill High School West.

Norcross, a graduate of Camden County College, was joined by the presidents of Rowan University, Rowan College at Burlington County, Rowan College at Gloucester County, Camden County College, members of the Rutgers University administration and educators, parents and students.

“Not every 17-year-old understands what it’s like to incur a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of debt or what that really means,” Norcross said. “This is a crisis. One of the greatest things we’ve done as a nation is give the ability to have student loans. One of the biggest issues we have as a country going forward is student loans.”

Paul Drayton, president of Rowan College at Burlington County, said a solution is needed because, although college is too expensive, it is close to unavoidable.

“What we’re all saying here is college costs too much. It is beyond belief that it costs as much as it does, whether it is a private or public college,” Drayton said.

But he admitted that “it’s at a time where every statistic known to man is telling you that you have to have a degree.”

Two solutions for softening the financial blow of a bachelor’s degree that RCBC has recently subscribed to, and that the education leaders in the room discussed, were 3+1 initiatives and extending college into high school.

Drayton has referred to 3+1 as a game changer. The initiative, which RCBC will start next semester and Rowan College at Gloucester County will also implement, will allow students in certain fields to spend three years at community college and transition to their fourth year at Rowan University, getting a Rowan University degree and saving money by paying community college tuition for the three years, compared with two. 

“Now you are completing a Rowan University degree for less than $30,000, and your debt is minimal to zero,” Drayton said.

The other idea of extending college-level courses into high school for college credits is something schools have been doing, but also something the group at the roundtable wanted to see expanded.

Drayton said RCBC has started a pilot program with the Burlington County Institute of Technology in which high school engineering courses are infused with college curriculum so students can finish their first year of college before graduating.

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand spoke of more widespread changes needed on top of the initiatives discussed.

“I really do believe, congressman, that the issue of higher education in this country is a strategically serious, serious issue … far more than any other threat I can think of,” he said.

Houshmand briefly touched on curriculum, saying colleges need to have more of a partnership with businesses in which business leaders sit down to create pathways for students that will be most efficient based on current business climates.

He also believes a zero-cost bachelor’s degree could be possible through partnership with government that extends beyond financial aid and focuses more on work.

Houshmand would like to see a system where students can work nontaxable government jobs and have their salaries get gifted to the college to go toward their tuition. He said if a student worked 2,000 hours over four years for $15 an hour, it would pay off a Rowan University bachelor’s degree.

Houshamand said the higher-education system hasn’t changed its business practices to keep up.

“Higher education is a business, whether people like it or not,” he said.

He said that higher education is too focused on revenues, and that colleges have become lazy and relied too heavily on handouts from the state and federal government and from parents and students.

“It is about time for higher education to turn the light on and look at the expense side of it, and to stop thinking that money grows from a tree, and the state or the feds can just bankroll you and you can just get fat and happy,” said Houshmand, adding that schools must be willing to cut expenses. 

Drayton chimed in on the idea of college presidents waiting for state funding instead of being proactive.

“I hear presidents say all the time, ‘We need more money from the state.’ If you are sitting around and waiting for that to change, you are going to be in trouble,” he said.

The group of administrators, educators, students and parents also discussed the pressure on high school students to go away to college, and the stigma in attending community college.

Christina Cover, an RCBC student and president of the Student Government Association, said although she got accepted to plenty of colleges, she chose Rowan College for financial reasons, but the decision didn’t come easy.

“I came to realize that my senior year was faced with a lot of pressures from external and internal forces. There is a lot of pressure to want to go away to somewhere that is prestigious,” Cover said.

Norcross spent a lot of time touching on the financial hardships of choosing a college, but also called it a decision-making process where emotions and peer pressure come into play.

“As a father, I can personally relate to the sticker shock of trying to put children through college,” he said. “This simply cannot continue. It is dragging down our economy and, more importantly, our children. We must come up with a collective solution to make college more affordable and accessible.”